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  • Michael Smith, Mythical Britain

Great Canfield, Essex – a remarkable “hidden” Norman church

The church of St Mary’s at Great Canfield in the county of Essex is remarkable. While from the outside its windows and decoration give the impression of it from the fourteenth century or later, it is clear almost immediately that the building is older. It is almost as if the church is trying to hide its secrets.

Powerful Norman family

Any church built next to a Norman motte immediately indicates antiquity. The motte at Great Canfield was built by the de Vere family who were to become famous as the Earls of Oxford and whose castle at Hedingham remains as one of the finest Norman keeps in England.

The castle here, while clearly not in the same league as Hedingham, is nonetheless a particularly fine example of its type. The earthworks are large and impressive and its ditches, which also include a partial diversion of the river Roding, indicate the power of its owners,

A special church

If little remains of the structure of Great Canfield castle, the same cannot be said of the church, which was probably built at the same time and may have replaced a much older building.

In many ways, it is a special church - telling the story of its once powerful owners much more majestically than its neighbouring earthworks covered under impenetrable brambles, bushes and trees.

It is not immediately evident on arrival that we are looking at a Norman church but, once the visitor has entered the fifteenth century porch, the complexion of the building changes completely.

At once, the visitor is confronted with a most unusual Norman doorway. The tympanum itself is fascinating with it stylised “rising sun” chevron work and billeted extrados but the real interest lies just below in the capitals.

Odin, Huginn and Muninn carvings

Here, on the left, we see what is thought to be a representation of Odin with the ravens Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) whispering to him. On the return we see a row of five swastika carvings. The opposite capital features another Norse face and what appears to be a snake. Whether these are indeed Norse carvings or perhaps relate to Biblical stories is unclear, yet the Norse style of execution is compelling. Could these have come from an earlier building?

Norman chancel arch

Upon entering the church, the initial Victorian feeling to the place leaves the visitor underwhelmed yet a closer inspection is worthwhile – particularly at the chancel end. Here are found the treasures of this great place in its wonderful Norman chancel arch and, beyond, a thirteenth century wall painting featuring an image of the Virgin Mary which Pevsner states is the finest in the country. He’s not wrong.

It is thought that this wall painting, and the accompanying decoration of the east wall, may once have formed an unusual painted reredos and what survives here is of amazing quality. In its day, the visitor would have been astonished by the vibrancy of the decoration; while many of the original colours have long since disappeared, the fine execution of what remains suggest that a master was at work here.

The chancel arch is also impressive with its billeted decoration to the extrados; the circular opening above, decorated in the same fashion, is not an original feature. As a whole the arch is a fine example with crisply carved capitals (one of which also features graffiti of a mediaeval shield). Yet there is one feature which makes the arch truly remarkable: the abacus atop the southern respond.

Anglo-Danish Ringerike tombstone

This feature, very difficult for the visitor to see without a ladder or mirror, comprises a re-used Anglo-Danish gravestone of the early 11th Century with Viking Ringerike style carvings (named after the Ringerike district, north of Oslo, which provided sandstone on which many similar-style Viking carvings were made). A similar stone was found at St Paul’s cathedral in London and is now on display at the Museum of London, comparisons of which have been made with the famous Jelling Stone (a version of which is also available as a Mythical Britain greetings card!).

To find such a stone at Great Canfield – albeit largely hidden from view – suggests that this small village long precedes the Norman settlement here, and was home to wealthy and influential people. Standing at St Mary’s Church and staring across to the great motte next door, it is hard not to be swept up in the atmosphere and history of a place which once, perhaps, had much greater significance than might seem today.

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